My friend Sarah spent a year in Rome learning the language and soaking in the culture. She came back a lover of all things Italian, especially the food. She whips up savory Italian meals with tomatoes grown in her little back-yard garden. Sarah recently moved into a downtown condo. She loves the place, but she's got a major dilemma -- there's no room for her garden. "Homegrown tomatoes are a must for my kitchen," she said, during our weekly coffee chat.
"What about a hanging garden on your patio?" I suggested. Sarah said hanging gardens were outside of her field of expertise, and she gave me that pleading look my friends all employ when they want me to research something for them. They know I can't resist.
My first call was to Mission Hills Nursery, where salesman Geoff Willoughby told me, "Cherry tomatoes and larger tomatoes have a slight vining texture to them. Normally we put a cage around them to hold them upright."
But he said smaller variety tomatoes could be planted as a hanging plant as well. "Cherry tomatoes, because they are smaller, can handle the dropping factor without pulling the whole entire plant out of the basket," Willoughby explained. "Especially here in San Diego, with our ever-increasing lack of space, hanging plants are a great idea. For condo living, it is a way to have vegetables but get them off the ground. It frees up some more ground space for yourself."
What kind of baskets will work?
"A variety of different baskets would work," continued Willoughby. "You could use a wire mesh basket with a decorative moss inside of it. Or you could use a standard plastic styled pot. You want a depth of at least eight to ten inches to give the roots enough space to go around. If you use a smaller pot, you will still get fruit production, but it will be less. You could also plant a couple of different varieties of tomatoes. The larger the basket you go, the more varieties you can plant in there. In a larger basket, about 16 to 20 inches, you could probably plant three to four different varieties."
Willoughby hesitated to recommend a tasty cherry tomato. "Tastes vary so much," he explained, "that I don't want to recommend one tomato plant that I think is tasty. Super Sweet 100 are very popular. And there's Yellow Plum, which is a real small yellow tomato. There's also the Green Grape tomato, which grows with a greenish flesh on it, and it turns a nice amber color when it's fully ripe, but it keeps the greenish hue inside."
Willoughby said tomatoes come in a lot of colors. "Some have yellow flesh, green flesh, purple flesh, or blackish flesh. The specialty variety tomatoes people use for different culinary measures, and they do have different flavors.
Willoughby offered this planting tip: "Plant them at an angle as opposed to upright," he explained, "at about 30 degrees, sort of lean them out toward the edge of the pot. That will help promote growth that way."
For soil he recommended "a rich organic mix that drains well. The organic mixes have beneficial nutrients that help the plants thrive even if you haven't fertilized them yet."
With regard to fertilizing, "we recommend an organic fertilizer. You can use Miracle-Gro as well. The thing to keep in mind is, when you're using a synthetic fertilizer, it leaches off very quickly. You will have to fertilize every 10 to 14 days. With an organic product, you will only fertilize about once a month. An organic stays in the soil a little longer. It is typically a smaller concentration, but that concentration hangs around longer."
How much sun do they need?
"All tomatoes love sun. They want the sun. They can handle as much sun as you can give them. Even if you are in the 100-degree heat, they like that sun. They just require more water if they are out in that hot heat. Early morning and early evening are the best times to water the plants. Water before the sun gets on the plants, because you can burn the plant. The water sort of causes a magnification effect of the sun on the plant. With a hanging basket, because the pot is usually shallower, it will dry out quicker."
How do you test the soil for dryness?
"Feel down to your second knuckle on your finger, about two inches into the soil. If the tip of the finger feels wet, you are okay. If it feels dry at that depth, then you should give it some water. Give the plant enough water to water it through once, so you see the water draining out of the pot. Stop once you see it dripping."
Willoughby said that they do make soil meters, but "only half of the time they work well. They tend to break."
Should you prune the plant?
"You can prune it for the aesthetics of the plant because tomato plants can sprawl three or four feet easily. If you want your plant at three feet when it's done growing, and it is at two and a half feet but it hasn't fruited yet, prune it back six inches. Prune it back on the stock just right above one of the nodes. Clip above that about a centimeter and the new growth will come out between that node and the stock that you just cut."
What about bugs?
"Tomatoes typically don't have a lot of bug issues," he said. "With a hanging basket, you probably won't have any snail issues. Sometimes when the plant flowers you get some mite-type insects. I would definitely recommend using some sort of organic spray, since it's an edible plant."
Mission Hills Nursery is selling their tomato plants for $2.99 for a 6-pack or in a 4-inch plant.
A plastic 8-inch hanging pot is $3.99 . The wire frames start at $3.99 for a 12-inch. A 14-inch basket lined with moss is $23 .